Human beings, reflects Sir Ian McKellen in Joe Stephenson’s winsome new doc McKellen: Playing the Part, are acting all day long. It’s not yourself you offer to the world, but part of yourself. This insight is characteristic of a film that continually racks focus to the man behind the famous actor who, at the age of 78, has thought deeply about his work and life and whose attitude toward himself appears bracingly unpretentious and down-to-earth. After making its bow at the Rome Film Festival, where McKellen also gave a master class, the film should join the small circle of high-level docs about the acting profession (Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard springs to mind) able to inspire newcomers.

With his hypnotic blue-green eyes shining under tweedy brows on a well-weathered face, Sir Ian is still an attractive man able to seduce and manipulate an audience at his pleasure. His dominant presence makes any question about objectively examining his life a moot point. This is clearly not a tell-all autobiography, but the story of a wildly successful career as seen through the protagonist's own eyes. Later in the film, biography alternates with the social issues that have preoccupied McKellen for decades, particularly his outspoken championing of LGBT rights. Since belatedly making his homosexuality public at the age of 49, he has thrown himself into the fight for legal and social equality for gay people by appearing on talk shows and committees, fundraising, and speaking in schools against homosexual bullying. In a sense, this sociopolitical dimension fills the missing space of personal accounts of his love affairs and private life, which are barely mentioned.

Structured very simply as an on-camera interview while McKellen reminisces about his life from the comfort of a red library chair, the film exudes a personal warmth springing from the fact that most of it is told in Sir Ian’s own words. This is true even of several well-directed scenes of his youth that have been reconstructed in crisp, post-war black-and-white by cinematographer James Rhodes. The characters open their mouths and McKellen’s voice comes out.

Born to middle-class parents in a mining town in England’s Northwest, he is endearingly portrayed as a young boy by Milo Parker, his young sidekick in Mr. Holmes. As a boy, Ian adored dressing up, using theatrical makeup, wearing his clothes on backwards — anything that would attract people’s attention. Acting in school plays gave him an outlet for his repressed emotions, notably his precocious knowledge of his sexuality and the impossibility of talking about it. Scott Chambers, playing him as a teenager, has a glorious moment talking his way into Cambridge after failing all the entrance exams: he declaims a speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V that rattles the timbers and turns around a hostile examiner.  

Stephenson marshals a rapid-fire collage of roles, costumes and makeup as the versatile Ian begins his meteoric rise, first on the university stage (with glowing reviews in the national press) in mainly Shakespearean roles, then beyond. A young Maggie Smith recommends him to The Old Vic, “the most famous theater troupe in the world” directed by Laurence Olivier, but he leaves it to become a rising star on the independent stage with the likes of the magnetic Judi Dench. By 1970, he's starring in Edward II and Richard II at the same time. It wouldn’t be long before his name is in lights on Broadway, too.

Of course, only traces remain of these acclaimed performances in the archives, and the general public will remember McKellan best as the mythical wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings cycle, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, and for his gravitas as an overage, muscle-bound Magneto in the X-Men films. A good anecdote about acting against a blue screen his first day on the Hobbit set suggests how seriously he took the new tech.

But it's heartening that other movie parts touched him deeply. Recalling his role as director James Whale in Gods and Monsters (another Oscar nom, as best actor in a leading role), he notes that “its success has given me as much pleasure as anything else in my life".

Eben Bolter's almost expressionist lighting gives the red-chair interviews a theatrical warmth. The editing, like the acting, is impressively off-handed in the recreated scenes, which flip by like quickly turned pages in a book of memories. The one off-key note is sounded by the painfully obvious use of Peter Gabriel’s score to signal the approach of triumphal moments. And there are a lot of them.

A Great Point Media, B Good Picture Company presentation of a Surreal Film Co. production in association with Ugly Duckling Films, LipSync Productions
Cast: Ian McKellen, Frances Barber, Adam Brown, Scott Chambers, Penny Clapcott, Luke Evans, David Foxxe, Sean Mathias, Milo Parker, Edward Petherbridge, Martin Sherman, Malcolm Sinclair, Morgan Watkins
Director: Joe Stephenson
Producers: Mark Birmingham, Joe Stephenson, Lena Bausager, Sophia Gibber
Executive producers: Jim Reeve, Joe Stephenson, Norman Merry, Elain Ward
Director of photography: Eben Bolter, with additional photography by James Rhodes
Production designer: Zoe Payne
Costume designer: Emma Rees
Editor: Joe Stephenson, Harry Yendell
Music: Peter Gabriel
World sales: Independent Film Sales
91 minutes